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Digging for Frameworks, Theories, and Models in Environmental Policy & Management

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar

​Tanya Heikkila & the Organizing Team

Univeristy of Colorado Denver


The study of environmental policy and management is a rich and diverse field that seeks to describe, analyze and explain how processes, tools, and institutional arrangements shape human interactions with, and influence on, the natural world. Environmental policy and management processes can be quite complex – involving diverse types of actors (e.g. governmental, non-governmental, industry, courts, scientists, and local citizens) operating at all scales of decision-making (individual, organizational, governmental).  These processes address a wide range of issues, such as the effects of pollution on our water, air, and land; the protection of species and habitat, and the sustainability of the natural resources needed for human survival and economic growth.  Added to this complexity, the policy tools and institutional arrangements governing these issues are diverse, ranging from regulatory actions to voluntary programs, incentives, consumer education campaigns, collaborative agreements, management plans, and the like, that may be organized and implemented by actors at local, state, national, regional and international scales.  Arguably, theories, as well as frameworks and models, provide valuable tools to help scholars and students understand the complexity and diversity of this field by providing lenses through which one can simplify and then ultimately understand and analyze environmental policy and management.
To provide a platform for sharing knowledge about the diverse theories that are emerging in the field of environmental policy and management, the Environmental Affairs Working Group (EAWG) and the Workshop on Policy Process Research (WOPPR) at the School of Public Affairs (SPA) at the University of Colorado Denver is hosting a spring 2012 seminar series titled “Digging for theories in environmental policy and management.”  This paper introduces the goals of the seminar series and offers some recommendations for how the participants (both presenters and audience members) can learn from one another and from the emerging scholarship in this field.  After introducing the seminar’s goals, we offer some insights on the importance of learning multiple theories, frameworks or models in the study of any complex phenomena, and how those benefits contribute to critical thinking.   We then briefly differentiate among frameworks, theories, and models and give some examples of these differences from the environmental policy and management fields.  We conclude with a set of guidelines that scholars and students can use in understanding and comparing multiple frameworks, theories and models.  While we focus on the field of environmental policy and management, we argue that the value of these guidelines can extend beyond the environmental field.

Goals and Benefits of the Seminar Series

The WOPPR/EAWG seminar series offers a platform for understanding the diversity and application of theories, frameworks, and models across the study of environmental policy and management.  In doing so, the seven goals for the Digging for Environmental Theories seminar series are to:
1)       Learn to appreciate the differences and similarities among diverse theories;
2)       Recognize the assumptions we use in our research and analysis;
3)       Explore environmental issues from different points of view;
4)       Learn how theories are being applied in diverse contexts;
5)       Improve our ability to communicate about complex topics;
6)       Inform innovative future research, policymaking, and management; and
7)       Strengthen the community of students and faculty at SPA, particularly those involved in the WOPPR and the Environmental Affairs Working Group.
To help structure the opportunities for learning across the different presentations this semester, each presenter will be asked to write a statement that describes a) their topical area of research and why it is important, b) the theoretical approach(es) used in their research, c) the theoretical and practical lessons learned from the work and theory to date, and d) the unanswered questions and the future direction in the area.    The idea is to explore the lessons learned from both academic and practitioner perspectives across various theories (plus frameworks and models)[1]. 
The exposure to multiple frameworks, theories, and models in this seminar series is deliberative.  Any effort by both scholars and practitioners to describe and explain aspects of environmental policy and management will ultimately falter without effective simplifying strategies.   The reason is simple: the world is too complex and humans too cognitively limited to see everything.   One of the best simplifying strategies is the explicit use of frameworks, theories, and/or models.  To better understand the use and benefits of such strategies, the focus of the Digging for Environmental Theories seminar series will provide broad exposure to a sample of frameworks, theories, and models currently being used to study environmental policy and management.   Additionally, the effort is not just to gain focus on just one framework, theory, or model but to gain exposure to multiple ones.   The reason for multiple frameworks, theories, and models is exemplified by Graham Allison who used three lenses to explain the Cuban Missile Crisis.    In drawing lessons from his three-fold interpretation, Allison concludes:
Spectacles magnify one set of factors rather than another and thus not only lead analysts to produce different explanations of problems that appear, in their summary questions, to be the same, but also influence the character of the analyst’s puzzle, the evidence he assumes to be relevant, the concepts he uses in examining the evidence, and what he takes to be an explanation.
                                                                     (Allison, 1971; pg 251).
Using multiple theories, therefore, can help clarify differences in assumptions and boundaries of any particular lens, enables us to ask different questions of the same event or process, and provides a fuller picture through multiple comparisons, descriptions, and explanations.  Ultimately, this can help mitigate threats of what Loehle (1987) calls “theory tenacity” and “theory confirmation”.   Theory tenacity is the tendency for people to stick to their favorite explanation or theory in the face of disconfirming evidence.  Multiple theories permit people to hedge their observational investments thereby avoiding an over commitment in just one.  Theory confirmation is the tendency for people to seek and observe observations that confirm their favorite theory while consciously or subconsciously avoiding disconfirming observations.  The use of multiple theories, as spectacles or lens, at the least provides some reassurance that information will be collected in a more diverse manner than if just one theory were applied.
Furthermore, one positive externality from learning about diverse theoretical approaches  is possibly stronger skills in critical thinking.  The conceptual and operational definition of critical thinking varies in the learning and educational literature.  If we take one definition, see Tarvis (2001), and compare it to the benefits of using multiple theories, a strong congruence is found between critical thinking and using multiple theories.   Figure 1 below lays out the guidelines offered by Tarvis, and shows how some of the benefits of comparing multiple theories feed into or interplays with elements of critical thinking.   For example, both critical thinking and knowing multiple theories helps in asking different questions, specifying assumptions, providing a bigger picture and in examine evidence, identifying boundaries and generalizability, and mitigating threats of theory tenacity and theory confirmation by holding prior beliefs “lightly”.
 Intro Figure 1.bmp
Frameworks Theories & Models in Environmental Policy & Management
As Ostrom (2005; 2011) and Schlager (2007) have argued, it is possible and useful to differentiate among frameworks, theories, and models.  While they are all inter-related, and some scholars use the terms interchangeably, each offers something slightly different in our efforts to simplify, describe, and explain complex phenomena.  Knowing whether one is working at the level of a framework, theory, or model can be the first step in allowing for useful comparisons of similarities and differences across different types of analytical approaches. 
Frameworks, in general, are designed to organize and “bound” the analysis of a particular phenomenon by specifying assumptions and identifying the essential concepts and variables of interest to study.  In doing so, frameworks can clarify the language and shared concepts that connect scholars in a research program or traditions (Laudan, 1977?). Frameworks do not tend to be predictive or provide specific explanations of relationships among variables of interest.  Embedded within frameworks, theories posit relationships among variables or different factors or predict particular outcomes usually through hypotheses or propositions.  More than one theory may be compatible with any given framework.  As such frameworks can provide a “metatheoretical language” from which theories can be compared (Ostrom 2011; pg.8).  Theories narrow the scope of the phenomena usually through identifying and subset of concepts and variables from a framework.  By interrelating the concepts and variables, theories establish causal drivers and causal mechanisms that explain the interrelations toward outputs and outcomes.  Models offer more precise representations of a limited set of factors or variables and help test particular parts of theories theory.  Thus, models focus the scope of inquiry with narrowing assumptions (e.g. when and where)  when positing relationships among variables, which can help operationalize and test theories in different ways.  Sometimes the relationships that models specify are mathematical but they can also be represented with language or figures.  Not all models, however, may necessarily be embedded within theories, and not all theories are linked to frameworks.
As Schlager has noted, research on common pool resources developed initially by Ostrom (1990) and  Ostrom, Gardner and Walker (1994) has offered a useful articulation of how frameworks, theories, and models have been linked in a research program in the environmental policy and management field.   Common pool resource theories of collective action and of successful resource governance were devised initially under the common language and conceptual approach of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework.  At the same time, more focused explorations of the roles of open-access common pool resources and communication among resource users were developed using game theoretic models to test some of the specific hypotheses underlying theories of common pool resources, and then ultimately revise the theory.    
More recently, the lessons from this research program have been used to develop a new framework of social-ecological systems (SES) that that gives scholars a roadmap for incorporating more biophysical and ecological characteristics into studies exploring linked social and ecological systems, such as common-pool resource settings (Anderies et al. 2004; Ostrom 2009).  The framework evolved largely from many of the lessons gleaned in studying common-pool resources, but with the recognition that a purely social science framework (such as the IAD) was insufficient to provide the guidance on the nature of the biophysical characteristics that were relevant when studying natural resource governance and the outcomes in social-ecological systems (Ostrom 2011).  As Ostrom (2009) shows, some of the key categories of variables identified within the SES framework are the nature of resource units (e.g. fish, trees), the characteristics of a resource system (e.g. fishery, forest), the nature of resource users (fisherman, logger), the rules and processes of the governance system, the social, economic, and political setting, and the broader ecological context within which the system is embedded.
This SES framework comports well with the theory of common pool resource (CPR) governance, which for example, lays out how particular types of variables lead to collective action in the management of CPRs. For instance characteristics of the resource system that are associated with collective action are whether the system can be improved, information is available, and the spatial extent is small (Ostrom, Gardner and Walker 1994).  Characteristics of the resource units associated with collective action include whether the flow of units is predictable.  Additionally, characteristics of the resource users associated with collective action include a) most appropriators being dependent on the resource system; b) a common understanding of the resource system, c) a long-term view of CPR benefits (low discount rate), d) trust and norms of reciprocity, e) autonomy to organize, and e) prior organizational experience and leadership (Ostrom,  Gardner and Walker 1994).   Similarly, models continue to be developed and used by CPR scholars to tease out how particular variables within the theory influence collective action (Poteete et al 2010).  For instance, “tipping models” have been tested to explore why, in a game theoretic context, actors might prefer to cooperate with others when a significant proportion of others cooperate.  
The research program centering on common pool resources is but one example of how theories, frameworks and models relate in this field.  Recent work by Ramaswami et. al. (2012) in developing a framework of social-ecological infrastructural systems (SEIS), has aimed to explore how different theories fit with the framework to explain the relationships among actors and infrastructure systems across urban areas. 
Yet, many more theories, frameworks and models in the field of environmental policy and management have been developed without attention to how they might be nested with other frameworks, theories, or models.  The purpose of this paper is not to argue that they should be linked.  It is more to provide clarity for how they may be linked and offer insights for drawing more direct comparisons among them.  For instance, Cohen’s (2006) Multiple Lens Framework offers a lens for diagnosing why different environmental policies result in different types of outcomes.  The framework is not linked to a specific theory, but perhaps could be.  For instance it could be tied to other theories that focus on elements of the framework, such as environmental politics (e.g. Ernst 2003) and policy instrument design (Sterner 2003; Gunningham and Sinclair 2005).  A long list of theories in the field, such as voluntary environmental programs/green clubs (Fiorino 2009; Potoski and Prakash 2002), environmental justice theories (Schlosberg 2004), environmental conflict resolution theories (Emerson et. al. 2009), collaborative environmental management theories (Weber et al. 2005; Heikkila and Gerlak 2005), or adaptive governance theories (Adger 2005; Brunner and Steelman 2005) are all growing and robust in their own right, although may not be linked to broader frameworks and or more precise models.  Still, much of the literature has engaged actively in model building to explore how different theories play out in different contexts, such as May’s (2005) efforts to understand how the conditions that influence environmental compliance play out in different management contexts.  Additionally, much of the environmental policy and management literature has at least implicit connections to frameworks or theories that focus on policy and management processes more generally.  For example, environmental conflict resolution theories focusing on alternative dispute resolution (Susskind, McKearnan, and Thomas-Larmer, 1999) have been tied to the Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier and Weible, 2007;pg 205).
A reliance on the distinction of frameworks, theories, and models does have its counterarguments.  First, this distinctive vocabulary is rarely adopted across the social sciences and, hence, adopting the distinction is not a necessary strategy for success in academia.   In defense of the distinction, the only research program that uniformly adopts the framework-theory-model distinction is found within the Institutional Analysis and Development framework – currently one of the most successful research programs in the social sciences.   Nonetheless, significant advances have been made among scholars who do not make the distinction (see, among others, the track record of Baumgartner and Jones, 2012).  Second, the blurred boundaries among the three concepts can make it difficult to reliability distinguish among them. Thus, one could argue that the distinction may add unneeded complications in the development of frameworks, theories, or models.   We recognize these counterarguments but adopt the distinction between frameworks, theories, and models because of its value in drawing linkages and comparisons among literature in a shared research program, as we have seen with the IAD and common pool resource literatures previously mentioned,  as well as its roots in the production of science (Laudan, 1977). 

Recommendations and Conclusions

The diversity of approaches for studying environmental policy and management, the complexity of some of these approaches, and the challenges of understanding the differences and connections among frameworks, theories and models can make it difficult to effectively compare and draw lessons from them. Also, all theories (and frameworks and models) tend to include a set of presuppositions and it is important to be as transparent as possible about them. Therefore, we need guidelines for analyzing, comparing, and contrasting framework, theories, and models.  We refer readers to our appendix titled (Analyzing Frameworks, Theories, and Models), which we recommend that our participants, faculty, and students use when thinking about the lessons learned in the seminar.[2]  These guidelines focus comparisons on the scope, level of analysis, assumptions, key variables, casual processes, hypotheses, empirical support, and practical implications.  Doing so, we argue, provides a platform that allow for drawing out similarities and differences in approaches and understanding where they might fit in the structure of frameworks, theories, and models.
Exploring and comparing different theoretical perspectives we argue can be an important step in building scholarship and advancing knowledge in environmental policy and management. It also helps us think critically and build bridges amongst scholars and students in the field.  Looking at multiple frameworks theories and models is just one approach to theory development and critical thinking.  Applying existing theories to new contexts or extending, linking, filling, zooming (see last semester’s WOPPR seminar series) are also critical.   Ultimately, the goals and approach of the seminar should not be restricted to environmental policy and management, but we view it as a valuable starting point for diving into important policy and management issues of interest to scholars within the field of public affairs.

Appendix 1: Guidelines for Analyzing Frameworks, Theories, and Models

1.       Framework, Theory, or Model? a. Does the author/s classify their work as a framework, theory or model?  b. Do you agree with their classification? (Explain). b. If a framework, does it have attendant theories or models associated with it?  If a theory, is it nested within a broader framework?  If a model, is it nested within a broader theory?
2.       Scope and Level of analysis: a. What phenomenon (types of questions) is the focus of the framework/theory/model?  b. At what level of analysis does the framework/theory/model operate (e.g., individual, organization, situation, system)?
3.       Assumptions: a. What are the assumptions of the framework/theory/model?  b. Who motivates change in the framework, theory, or model? c. What assumptions are made about individuals (motivations, cognitive abilities, learning, decision-making calculus)
4.       Output/Outcome/Dependent Variables: a. What are the focal dependent variables in the framework/theory/model?  b. How are they defined conceptually?  c. To what extent are these definitions clear? d. Are these variables defined in such a way as to aid operationalization and measurement?
5.       Input/Independent/Explanatory Variables: a. What are the independent variables in the theory/framework/model? b. Is there one independent variable or set of variables that dominates?   c. How are they defined conceptually?  d. To what extent are these definitions clear? e. Are they defined in such a way as to aid operationalization and measurement? f. Are there major independent variables omitted given the scope of the theory/framework?
6.       Causal Process: a. What is the causal process (think of the relations among the independent and dependent variables in a flow diagram)? b. To what extent is the causal process stated clearly and explicitly? c. How does the theory/framework/model deal with feedback loops and nested/multiple levels of governance and/or human action (if at all)?
7.       Testable Hypotheses: a. What are the hypotheses/propositions (if any)?
8.       Revisions and Empirical Support: a. What revisions and adaptations have been made over time for the framework/theory/model (if any)? b. How much empirical support has there been for the theory and framework?  c. How strong is the empirical support (when, how often, and where)?  
9.       Practical Implications: a. What practical strategies can be learned from the logic of the theory/framework for influencing the phenomena of the framework/theory? b. What strategies can be learned from the empirical application?




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[1] Instead of saying Frameworks, theories, and models, we often abbreviate by just “theories.”
[2] These guidelines for analyzing frameworks, theories, and models were originally designed by Paul Sabatier, later refined and clarified by Chris Weible, and further tweaked by Tanya Heikkila.
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